A new educational service from Edmonton-based Castle Rock Research Corp. provides secondary students in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario with access to curriculum-based resources via Web browsers and apps for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.
Called Solaro, the subscription-based service provides lessons, tests and assessments in math, science, English, chemistry, biology and physics. The content, developed by a team of educators at Castle Rock, aligns with regional curriculum requirements for Grades 6 -12.
Students access Solaro by logging into a personal home page and are represented by an avatar in the system. “One of the approaches we’ve taken to make Solaro safe for students is to try to make them as anonymous as possible,” said Mark Madsen, chief technology officer at Castle Rock Research.
A built-in incentive program encourages students to continue studying by providing rewards like iTunes gift cards, iPods, sporting goods and clothing for completing lessons and quizzes.
Solaro includes social elements like forums, but discussions are restricted to educational topics, said Madsen. “We wanted to ensure that what Solaro didn’t become is a dating Web site for Grade 9 students … if two students want to talk to each other, they have to talk to each other about a lesson,” he said.
Activities are monitored through a combination of live people and real-time software that flags inappropriate content. “We need to keep an eye on things to ensure that this is really a good, wholesome educational environment we are providing them,” said Madsen.
Solaro apps for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad allow students to take assessments, go through lessons and access their notes. Currently, the apps don’t support discussions due to concerns that the function would generate a 17+ app rating from Apple, said Madsen. “We need a dialogue about that and once we are sure we can do that without affecting our rating, we will turn it on,” he said.
The iPhone and iPad apps are very similar right now, but Castle Rock will introduce disparities, said Madsen. “There will definitely be different functionality available for the tablet-based version of Solaro versus the mobile version of Solaro simply because of the screen size … there are certain things you just can’t do on a 320 x 480 mobile screen,” he said.
Castle Rock also plans to make the device-based versions of Solaro more functional than the Web. “With something like the iPad, you can really do that. We can pretty much take everything out of a student’s backpack but their No. 2 pencil and just kind of replace those tools,” he said.
Students can also study offline by downloading lessons and notes. “As a student accesses materials in Solaro, we locally store copies of that material on the device,” said Madsen.
Parents can log into the Web site for a detailed report of their children’s activities.
Designed to assist students with learning at home, Solaro doesn’t require involvement from teachers or schools. Castle Rock would like to see teachers get involved, but a dialogue needs to take place to determine how the tool could help, said Madsen.
“We don’t want to force this on teachers and we don’t want to replace teachers … we need to work with teachers to find out exactly what it is they want,” he said. The company, which has its roots in educational publishing, has roughly 100 educators on staff and another 100 on contract, he said.
Castle Rock Research is currently waiving the subscription fee for those interested in trying out the service. “We had a closed beta group and right now we are in open beta. Anyone can sign up and get an account,” he said.
“I like everything about Solaro,” said Zachary, a Grade 6 student in Alberta who participated in the closed beta. ”It’s a complete package, the curriculum is very easy to understand, it gets to the point. It’s just overall a really good, fun site,” he said.
Zachary’s mother, Rita Peever, said she likes Solaro precisely because her son likes it. “Anytime you have a child who is engaged in a program, it is a good thing. To me, that’s what the most important thing is. I may love it, but if the child using it doesn’t, it’s kind of useless,” she said.
Peever, who home schools Zachary, recommends the tool for all students. “I think it could benefit both worlds – both the home education side and the public side,” she said.
“We do a lot of work online and we see a lot of various programs. Having everything under one roof so to speak – language, arts, math and science – I think that’s what makes it unique,” said Peever.
Students learn at different levels, so if they didn’t understand a concept in class, they can go to the site, pick out the area they had trouble with and go through a review, she said. Solaro is also a good tool for bright kids who want to see what’s coming up next, she said.
Solaro launched in Canada and Castle Rock plans to introduce the product in the U.S. this fall, said Madsen. “Some parts of California are considering open source textbooks, so we can actually cross-reference the material that we provide in Solaro directly with those textbooks,” he said.
The product may evolve into an adaptive service in the future, he said. “It will take about a year of students using the system to collect enough data to be purely adaptive. Right now … we are taking what we know about the students and presenting content that is relevant to them,” he said.
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